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Economics for a Full Planet

“Put simply, Mister Rico, it's now all about optimums over maximums, quality over quantity, better over bigger; eco over ego, we over me.”

When I arrived at WorldBeat Café, I walked up to the counter to order my usual light morning breakfast — coffee and a croissant. A lovely smile emerged from behind the large pastry case. It took a few moments to break my gaze away from those gleaming white teeth and look up to see a perfectly proportioned nose; large, brown eyes; and straight, jet-black hair. Two large golden hoop earrings dangled just above her slender shoulders. She had a slim figure wrapped loosely in a light, colorful sarong of vibrant teal and magenta swirls.


It was her! — the mysterious young woman with the cute little blue ukulele who had joined our Saturday morning Community Music Circle for a too-short time at the green market several months ago.


Hello, Mister Rico. Your usual breakfast?”


She had apparently been given a heads up by the café manager about the ‘regular’ that comes in, often carrying a guitar and backpack, and usually wearing a Hawaiian shirt and a scruffy brown 'Playing for Change' ball cap with sunglasses perched on top. Her smile suggested she recognized me from the Music Circle gathering, but I couldn’t be sure. I don’t think I’d ever seen her not smiling.


“Yes, my usual, a beer-and-peanut-butter smoothie topped with a swirl of spicy mustard.”


I wondered what reaction that ridiculous order might get. Not missing a beat, and acting rather surprised, she responded,


“OMG! That’s my favorite too!”


And then burst into laughter. We both enjoyed the silliness.


I told her about my recent adventure crewing aboard a Polynesian double-canoe sailboat in the South Pacific and gave her a quick summary of all the highlights, cast, and crew. I was anxious to move on to questions about her. She giggled curiously when I pronounced ‘Kalea’, the name of the boat.


Wow! That’s an amazing experience, Mister Rico. I'm truly envious.”


I asked her where she was from. I wanted to know more about this mysterious cheerful stranger that had joined our musical group that Saturday. She explained she had just moved here from an island in the Caribbean — she didn’t specify which one — and that she was working at the café part-time while going to school. Naturally, I asked her what she was studying,


“Ecological Economics.”


“Sounds interesting. What’s that all about?”


“Ecological economics is a growing transdisciplinary field based on the systems sciences and scientific worldview of today — not of 200 years ago.  Unfortunately, old science and an overly simplistic, mechanistic worldview still dominate our mainstream economic discussions today. In contrast, ecological economics embraces the full spectrum of current social, natural, behavioral, evolutionary, and systems sciences and brings the full potential of our intellectual capital to bear on the huge financial and ecological problems we now face. It attempts to bridge the cleverness of our sciences with the wisdom in our moral philosophy to create a more honest, fair, and fitting human economic story for our times. Ecological economics fundamentally challenges the patently absurd notion of infinite growth on a finite planet. It points out that the Earth is now well past being 'full' in terms of our human impact on the environment. It proposes a model of ethical and sustainable development for mature economies like ours based on three interdependent core principles: SUSTAINABLE SCALE of material and energy flows, JUST AND FAIR DISTRIBUTION of resources, and ECONOMIC EFFICIENCY in the allocation of those resources. A mature economy is one that no longer needs to grow in order for people to thrive. Put simply, Mister Rico, it's now all about optimums over maximums, quality over quantity, better over bigger; eco over ego, we over me.”


“Love it!”


I glanced behind me to see if there were any other customers in line behind me. There weren’t.


“Tell me more.”


She continued,


“It really all comes down to this: we now require a very different regenerative and circular economy that recognizes the obvious truth that the human economy is embedded in, and a part of, Earth’s regenerative and circular biophysical systems. Cycles and flows of energy, matter, entropy, and biogeochemical processes must all be factored into all economic models at every level. It is an economic system grounded in the realities of a world that is effectively filled to capacity with people and must now accept and operate within the biophysical limits of a finite planet and the moral obligations of a just society. And we must stop clinging to feel-good delusions, denials, and distractions and begin the serious and necessary work of transitioning from a global culture that values endless growth and virtual wealth — money — to a culture that values prosperity and real wealth — healthy people, happy places, and a habitable planet for future generations. Not such a radical concept, is it?”


“Not at all. Seems like those concepts should be discussed at every level of education — starting tomorrow! Lua would surely approve.”


She looked surprised and smiled when I mentioned ‘Lua’ and was just about to ask me something when she was interrupted by a gruff, impatient customer inquiring about his order. I figured I had held her up long enough in conversation and should let her get on with her work.

I returned to my table to begin the onerous task of writing about, and making sense of, my magical time aboard Kalea with Captain Bob, that motley crew of reality-show cast members, and one remarkable Chef Lua. But, alas, the writing would have to wait, as that short and potent introduction to 'ecological economics' had rudely hijacked all of my current thoughts.


My own thinking in recent years on ethics, energy, the economy, and the environment painted a picture of a global economy in transition away from an ‘empty-world’ era in which human-made capital like homes, factories, tractors, and fishing boats were the limiting factor in economic development and toward our current ‘full-world’ reality today in which the remaining natural capital — forests for timber, petroleum deposits for crude oil, fisheries for fish — have become limiting factors.


In the ‘empty-world’ economics of the past, resources from natural capital were considered free goods, not including harvesting or extraction costs, and were therefore freely plundered.  But society experienced a Great Acceleration in the production and accumulation of human-made capital after World War II through the consumption of fossil fuels and the rapid growth of market economies, which radically changed our relationship to natural resources.


As a response to our current ‘full-world’ economic condition, stocks of natural capital like timber, oil, and fish are today being liquidated to temporarily keep up the flows of natural resources that support the sunk-cost value of an oversupply of capital infrastructure like sawmills, refineries, and fishing boats.

But material consumption and GDP growth are merely means to that end, not ends in themselves. Obviously, the goal of any human economy should be to sustainably improve human well-being and quality of life. Does it not make more sense today to replace the goal of constructing and motivating ‘consumers’ that seek to maximize consumption with the the goal of nurturing engaged ecological citizens that seek to maximize well-being?

Business-as-usual ‘empty-world’ economics would surely only increase existing stresses along fault lines of ethnic and religious divides, especially in areas with dense, resource-constrained populations, that could easily rupture and cause massive social unrest, violence, and widespread suffering. Surely, any new economic system going forward should focus on qualitative over quantitative improvements, through more efficient use of energy and materials, cooperative alliances, and recycled ‘closed loop’ cradle-to-cradle waste flows.


It should favor a developing economy — not necessarily one that is growing — an economy that is getting better, not necessarily bigger — with more efficient use of energy, materials, and knowledge. Developing economies should opt to shift investments away from human-made capital accumulation and toward natural capital preservation and restoration. And technology should focus more on increasing the productivity of existing natural capital than on increasing the productivity of human-made capital. Progress should be defined differently: as reforestation, restocking of wildlife populations, and replacing polluting and depleting petroleum energy stocks with cleaner and leaner renewable energy flows.


Our current economic culture values financial capital above all other forms and is single-discipline, human-focused, short-term, mechanistic, atomistic, and assumes static human preferences. Any new economic system should place much higher value on social capital over financial capital and be multi-disciplined, multi-species, long-term, dynamic, systems-oriented, and recognize evolving human goals and aspirations. Ultimately, it should fundamentally and dramatically transform our current troubled and immature relationship with each other and with the living Earth on which we all depend.

Enough! I needed to stop mulling over this global economic predicament over which I had very little control and get back to the immediate work of writing my story. After all, resistance and change often begin with artful words and stories. Begin!


Perhaps some ‘conscious breathing’ would help get my mind back on track. A few long, deep breaths would surely do the trick. Breathe in ... breathe out ... breathe in ... breathe out ...

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​© 2021 Rich 'Rico' Leon